This is Grief

September 9, 2015

First, if you haven't met Nanny, read this

 

Year 1: You have to be careful not to drink too much: at the dive bar after workshop, ordering gin and soda; watching Mad Men with glasses of blueberry juice and vodka; sitting around the wooden breakfast table with friends, sharing bottles of wine. Because no matter where you are or who you're with, there's a moment when pain slices unexpectedly through that numbness and laughter swerves into sobs. Grief has transformed you into someone you don't recognize, wailing in the car, on the closet floor, on friends' shoulders in countless bathrooms. You are all nerve endings, raw and selfish and unpredictable. There's no escaping the shock of no longer having her with you; there's no forgetting the final moments you spent with her before running from the room.You scoff at one friend's suggestion to try therapy--this is grief, you say. This is normal. You don't talk about it, not really, with the only ones who would understand, because the idea of such grief combined, multiplied, has all the promise of stealing what parts of you are still able to effect a fragile normalcy. You cannot imagine ever feeling differently.

 

 

Year 2: On this second anniversary, you cook dinner for two; it's a tradition now, this dinner, since you did it last year, too. You curve your spine, ducking your nose to the pan where rice and onions sizzle over oil, and you close your eyes and smile, feeling her beside you. Tears tickle your eyelids, but you blink them back, because there's work to do. While the rice, beans, and picadillo cloud their various pan lids with condensation, you roll the masa for tortillas. You are so hopeful. Last year, they came out hard and chalky, nothing like hers. Your forearms ache from kneading. The counters are snowed over with flour. How did she do this, you wonder, twice a week? How did she get them so light and fluffy? On the pan--you don't have a comal--you know instantly they're wrong again: the raw side isn't bubbling, but the cooked side is already burned. Disappointment comes thick in your throat, as though you've been stood up by a date. You eat dinner, managing smiles and conversation, but after he goes to bed, you curl up on the couch and weep. A part of you feels you must keep vigil all night, until the hour she left, in hopes that somehow your spirit will brush against hers and neither of you will be alone.

 

Year 3: Dinner is for three this year, but it is quiet. Forks scrape against plates as if they can carry the conversation. For a number of months, you have felt as though you and he are becoming engulfed by silence. You can see the two of you shrinking into it, losing yourselves and each other in its emptiness. You sidestep each other with sad smiles and walk into each other’s lonely moments—you in the back yard, him in the front—and you are both miserable. This is not the marriage you wanted. You remember one of the last pieces of advice she gave you, as if she could see a future that might yet be different: Be good to each other. You think, We're trying. We've tried. Haven't we? You wonder if there's a way to be good to each other even as you're breaking apart. There must be.

 

Year 4:  You feel out of sorts, disoriented, as you try to resurrect her in a kitchen thousands of miles from home, in a country where another life is beginning to unfurl. You couldn't find the right ingredients: no Knorr chicken bouillion cubes for the rice, no Crisco for the tortillas. You've improvised, but the rice is mushy on top and burned on the bottom; the tortillas fissure down the center when you attempt to fold them. He smiles and takes your hand across the table: Good job, baby. Your eyes fill with tears because you know he's just being nice, and the niceness hurts as much as anything else, as much as four years gone by, as much as being surrounded by a whole country that never knew her. He holds you later as you cry, and you say, I wish you could have met her. He says, kissing your hair, I feel like I have. 

 

 

Year 5: You wake up at your parents' house. It's not the house where she held a bottle to your little sister's mouth or made chorizo con frijoles (que ricos los frijolitos!) every Sunday or watched through the kitchen window for you to get home from prom; but it is the last house she lived in with your family, even though by then you three kids were just visitors. You wake with a strange feeling of anticipation, as if it's a holiday, but when you remember, the anticipation shifts to sadness. The house is quiet when you slip downstairs to make coffee, then sit on the entryway floor to open the photo albums your mom keeps in a heavy piece of furniture against the wall. You stroke her hair through the plastic covers, jealous of the little girl you are in her arms. Later, your best friend brings you rich chocolate cupcakes. Bright tulips arrive, along with a lavender teddy bear that makes you laugh because of the #1 Grad stitched on its foot. The note, dictated over the phone across the world, says, Feel blessed on this anniversary to have had such an amazing woman in your lives for so long. I love you with all my heart. You leave the cupcakes and the tulips and the bear and the note to brighten the counter, right beside the mixing bowl you and your mother will take turns kneading tortilla masa inside. For the first time, your family spends her anniversary cooking and eating together. Tears pass over the table like light showers, not interrupting the stories being told. She feels so immediate that you can almost smell her.

 

 

Year 6: A home of your own, with the man who moved across the world to share it with you. You invite friends this year, a return to that first anniversary when you decided that you wouldn't--you couldn't--let her down by spending the day in gritty darkness. In the morning, you sit at the breakfast table sorting through beans, coffee steaming beside you, and you smile at how many memories you have of her doing exactly this: sitting at the breakfast table, coffee beside her, beans sifting like sand through her fingertips until she caught all the ones that weren't good enough to cook for her family. A sense of peaceful communing in these moments, a closed-eye feeling of her hands on yours. You cook for four hours before your friends arrive, bearing bottles of wine and tres leches cake. At the table, one of them says, smiling, Tell us stories of her. Your heart grows tender around the invitation. Words burble until eventually the house grows soft with shadows. It's late when your mom calls, crying because she's just read your blog, and she knows the answers to some of your questions. You so rarely hear your mother like this, so vulnerable, and the crying you do together feels like it should have been done a long time ago. You are glad for it, glad to know things you didn't know before, glad that the grief has collected itself into a burden that can be shared.

 

 

Year 7: You've started, finally, to think of the anniversary as a celebration; not of her death, of course, but of her life, of her love and the way it continues to fill you with comfort and peace, the way you always felt when you were sick and she came to your bedside and rubbed her fingertips along your scalp. Her love has a presence, a weight. You focus on this as you cook again for your friends, and it helps because the grief this year feels divided: the largest part is for her, but there's also grief for time itself, for its ceaseless passing and inevitable erasures, for the fear that one day, September 6 may arrive and be, even for a moment, just another day. You stand from the table and touch her portrait, and your voice breaks when you say, I miss her. It's seven by now, and you haven't cried, so the break comes as a kind of relief; the satisfying pain of a wound reopening, the bright blood assuring you that inside the coffin of your skin, you are still alive, after all.

 

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